Copy protection still a hot topic

by Alan Zisman (c) 2000. First published in Toronto Computes, February 2000

Let?s start off with a bit of personal computer history lesson. Back to the days, 15 years or so ago, when DOS reigned supreme in the personal computer world.

WordStar was the biggest word processor. Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet was the hottest business application.

And of course, there were games. Maybe not games as we know them today, but lots of computer games, none the less. Text-adventure games like Hitchhiker?s Guide to the Galaxy or crude graphic games like the first King?s Quest.

And there was software piracy. Wordstar had released a much-quoted study suggesting that for every copy legally purchased, there were four pirated copies floating around. While the methodology of the study was at best questionable, there were no doubt, a lot of floppies being copied.

The industry?s response was copy protection. Different companies bought into different copy protection schemes?some using floppies with holes punched out at precise locations, others using somewhat more sophisticated schemes. When you installed Lotus 1-2-3 onto your hard disk, it wrote a code to the floppy?after that, you couldn?t use that floppy to install onto any other hard drives, unless you first used a utility on the floppy to remove the first hard drive installation. Heaven help you if your hard drive crashed?you couldn?t easily reinstall the program onto a replacement hard drive.

Of course, copy protection schemes were just the thing to get some people going to find a way to beat the system?and soon enough, BBSs (think the era?s amateur equivalent of the Net) were filled with files allowing those in the know to work around various copy protection schemes. And some companies made their mark selling utilities allowing the copying of any disk?even copy protected, presumably un-copyable ones. Software companies selling copy-protected software fumed, but the makers of products like Copy-II-PC (Central Point Software, later to become better known for products like PC Tools before they were bought up by Symantec) swore up and down that they were filling a genuine need, and if a few users used their product in violation of copyright, it wasn?t their fault?the program did start up reminding users to only use it in a legal manner?wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

Eventually, the use of copy protection pretty much died out?at least for mass market products sold in North America. Some legitimate software producers found that when their competitors were copy protected, there was a market for a non-protected product?more convenient for the users, and proof that ?we? trust ?you?. Borland was able to sell enough copies of its non-protected Quattro spreadsheet that eventually Lotus gave up copy- protecting 1-2-3.

But in non-North American markets, copy-protection hung on for a while longer. It seemed that ?we? didn?t quite trust ?them?. And even in North America, niche market software often remained protected?software aimed at musicians, for example.

Games sometimes got other forms of protection? hard to copy codes, for example. Some games started up asking a trivia question, with the answer on a specific page of the manual. To pirate the game, you needed to also photocopy the whole manual. And even that might not help. The first copy of SimCity I owned came with a long list of codes, printed in purple ink on dark brown paper?which photocopied as black on black. Ouch!

What really killed copy protection, though, was CDs. As software got bigger, it was no longer practical to ship it on floppy diskettes. And everyone knows that CDs are read-only, right? As a result, for the last 5 years or so, the issue of copy protection has pretty much faded away.

Until now, that is.

CD-burners are hot sellers, with blank disks selling for more or less $2 each in packages of 10 or even 50 or 100. Once again, copying software may start up with a little reminder that users should not be using it to violate copyright. But once again, who are we trying to kid? Some users are making legitimate copies of, say, freely copyable software like Linux, or of music that they?ve personally created. But a lot more blank CDs are being sold than that!

Enter copy protection (once again).

For instance, Macrovision?s SafeDisc, which the company claims is ?effective against both consumer copiers and professional pirates?SafeDisc thwarts attempts to use CD-recordable drives and other devices to make useable copies of CD-ROMs?. In fact, the company claims it even ?thwarts attempts by consumers to use unauthorized copies downloaded via the Internet?.

The company has a decade?s experience providing copy protection for rental videotapes. It claims that its technology will ?thwart destructive hackers and commercial pirates?. (They seem to like that word, ?thwart?).

Suddenly, CD copy protection is showing up on a variety of software aimed at consumers?products ranging from Microsoft?s Encarta Suite to EA?s Need for Speed High Stakes.

I?m not surprised at history repeating itself once again. If your blank CD turns into a toaster when you tried to copy a game, well, don?t say you weren?t warned!

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan